A painting with a deep blue background, circular images and featuring the Arabic letter 'ain' in the bottom center.
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Collection Highlight: Madiha Umar, Precursor of Early Modern Calligraphy

26 September 2023

By Rim Albahrani

The permanent collection display of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art re-introduces Madiha Umar as the pioneer of early experimentations on calligraphy in Arab modern art.

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Madiha Umar (1908 – 2005), a prominent Arab modernist artist, was instrumental in forming the Hurufiyya movement in mid twentieth-century Iraq. Born in Aleppo, Syria, and raised in Iraq, where she became a naturalised citizen, Madiha immersed herself in the region’s post-Ottoman state, replete with intricate calligraphy on Islamic buildings and burgeoning cultural growth from Iraq’s ancient empires to modernity.

Her education continued in Beirut and Istanbul before she became one of the first women sent by the Iraqi government on a scholarship to England, where she pursued formal art education at Maria Grey Training College, the first teacher training college for women in the country. Upon returning to Baghdad in 1933, Madiha was appointed head of the Department of Arts at the Teachers Training College for Women during a time when Iraq was investing heavily in art education.

The 1940s was the artist’s decade of transition. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1942, Madiha pursued her art education at George Washington University, where she discovered the works of the Iraqi-American scholar of Islam, papyrology and paleography Nabia Abbott, whose research focused on the early development of Arabic calligraphy. This provided the foundational principle for Madiha’s aesthetical approach to the Arabic script, which involved the conversion of letters from their traditional contexts to abstract forms while preserving their transcendental essence. For the artist, the letter can expand beyond its graphic qualities, existing as a free form, independently withholding the connection to words.

A multicoloured painting with swirls of different colours and a deep navy background.

Madiha Umar, Untitled, 1966. Oil on board; 62 x 62 cm. Currently on display in Gallery 10 at Mathaf. Courtesy of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

During her first solo exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 1949, Madiha showcased her early experimental work, which featured the Arabic script as the primary and graphical element of her abstract art. Accompanying the exhibition, she composed a declaration titled Arabic Calligraphy: An Element of Inspiration in Abstract Art, concluding that each letter has the potential to generate an abstract design with its distinct personality and dynamism.

Madiha’s visual language led to the emergence of the mid twentieth-century Hurufiyya movement, in which, along with other notable artists such as Jamil Hamoudi, she challenged the Western traditional perception of modern Arab art by emphasising cultural specificity that reflected the region’s identity.

A painting with a deep blue background, circular images and featuring the Arabic letter 'ain' in the bottom center.

Madiha Umar, Untitled (The Letter Ein), 1986. Oil on board; 75 x 85 cm. Currently on display in Gallery 10 at Mathaf. Courtesy of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

Madiha’s later technique, in which she infused semiotics in her plasticised letters, was influenced by her role in the One Dimension Group formed by Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan Al Said in 1971. A decade later, in the 1981 exhibition in Baghdad, Madiha became the first artist to display modern calligraphy in the Arab world. An example of her involvement in the One Dimension Group is illustrated in Untitled (The Letter Ein), produced in 1986, and in which the artist focused on “ein” ( ع), a letter that conveys the meaning of the eye that allows comprehension through the visual experience. The composition follows the letter’s cursive shape in an interwoven path woven through a repetitive organic form of expressive imagery.

Black and white photo portrait of artist Madiha Umar

Madiha Umar, New York, 1995. Courtesy of Madiha Umar Estate.

Due to political conflicts and looting, Madiha’s work is no longer available in many public collections, making Mathaf’s examples even more important. Her body of work showcases her innovative approach to the visual elements of the Arabic language and its capacity to convey cultural and national identities. Her contributions to Iraq’s modern art movement are notable globally, and her work continues to be exhibited worldwide. Madiha’s work was re-contextualised in the 2022 permanent collection rotation at Mathaf, representing the emergence of calligraphy and its impact on later experimentations with the meaning and malleable qualities of Arabic script.

Rim Albahrani is a Research Assistant at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.


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Madiha Umar Estate.https://www.madihaumar.com/biography

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Takesh, Suheyla, Lynn Gumpert, Iftikhar Dadi, Hannah Feldman, Salah M. Hassan, Anneka Lenssen, Salwa Mikdadi, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Nada Shabout, and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie. Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s. Hirmer Publishers, 2020.

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